The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCR) will not talk to the Russians, Americans or even the Friends of Syria Group, which will meet next Thursday [Feb. 28] in Rome.
The need for coexistence among the NCR’s constituents has forced NCR leader Moaz al-Khatib to heed the demands of hawks in the NCR. He announced the NCR’s boycott of the Friends of Syria conference next week, which is organized by the international and regional sponsors that oversaw the NCR’s birth in Doha.
The NCR also canceled its Moscow visit, which had not yet been definitively set and which was necessary to develop and promote the negotiation initiative with the Syrian regime. The NCR is rejecting all dialogue and international meetings. Khatib even rejected an invitation by US Assistant Secretary of State William Burns to visit Washington. That visit would have given Khatib symbolic legitimacy, as he is currently the leader of that weak and fractious coalition, whose components only agree on bringing down the regime.
A high-level US official said yesterday [Feb.24] that Washington is trying to convince the NCR not to boycott the Friends of Syria conference in Rome on Feb. 28, which will be attended by US Secretary of State John Kerry.
The hawks include the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian National Council’s president George Sabra, liberal and independent figures, in addition to Muslim Brotherhood figures inside the NCR. The hawks total 26 members who oppose Khatib, in addition to Qatari favorite Secretary-General Mustafa Sabbagh’s 15- member bloc.
The meeting held in Cairo on Thursday [Feb.21] and Friday [Feb. 22] issued a statement announcing the boycott of the Friends of Syria conference, saying that it was one of many useless meetings that have given nothing tangible to the Syrian people.
Refusing to visit Moscow is a natural reaction to Moscow’s insistence on arming the regime and the continued crimes committed by the regime against the Syrian people with those weapons. The statement was a protest against the international community’s silence on the humanitarian catastrophe befalling the Syrian people, especially after the Syrian regime resorted to shelling eastern Aleppo with Scud missiles in recent weeks, killing dozens of civilians.
Syrian opposition sources said that Thursday’s meeting almost turned into a meeting to remove Khatib from his post as the NCR’s leader, after his initiative to negotiate with the regime faced harsh criticism. The hawks’ attempt to halt Khatib’s initiative started 10 days ago when the Cairo meeting issued an eight-point plan detailing the NCR’s requirements for a political solution. The opponents of Khatib’s dialogue initiative struck not only at the initiative but also at the ability of the NCR president to: 1) propose any initiative that the NCR does not unanimously approve 2) express the opinion of a wide-raging current that is present throughout the opposition, the public and even among the regime’s supporters 3) take advantage of the American-Russian convergence toward a settlement, and 4) drop the military option.
The statement did not provide a vision for a political solution. On the contrary, it hampered any political solution by setting conditions for the negotiations to bring down the regime and its key figures. It rejected any negotiations with those before the start of a political process. This contradicts Khatib’s initiative, which only included humanitarian demands that can be achieved and which the Syrian regime did not take advantage of to enhance the opportunity for dialogue, because the regime knows that any dialogue will ultimately lead to the its departure.
Sabra, the Muslim Brotherhood, and some liberal figures attacked the initiative, thus saving the regime from having to do so itself. As soon as Khatib proposed his initiative, they accused him of departing from the NCR’s charter, which rejects any dialogue with the regime.
An opposition member close to Khatib said boycotting the Americans, Russians and the Friends of Syria Group reflects the stark disagreements within the NCR between the minority led by Khatib — which includes Riad Seif and Walid al-Bunni — on the one hand, and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other. The Brotherhood controls the key decision posts in the NCR and insists on the military option no matter the cost. Thus, there is much discord inside the NCR between the doves and the hawks.
The Brotherhood wants to use the NCR as a facade for their international political work because their representation in the NCR’s committees exceeds their true political and popular size, and to compensate for the Brotherhood’s weak presence in the Syrian interior caused by the repression they suffered for four decades.
The Syrian opposition member said that the Muslim Brotherhood contacted Washington and London to explain that their decision to boycott will not affect their relations with those two allies and that the decision was necessary to “contain the damage caused by Khatib’s initiative, which weakened the NCR’s popularity inside Syria.” He spoke with the British Foreign Office to assure it that the military option is still the best option at this time.
The military option is supported by a European bloc led by France and Britain. They do not think that arming the opposition conflicts with the political process but rather helps it by tilting the balance of power in favor of the opposition. In a statement, the British Foreign Office called on the NCR to reverse its decision to boycott the Friends of Syria conference.
The NCR is examining how to form a government that can manage the areas controlled by the opposition. In its statement, the NCR said that the decision to form such a government has been taken and that, starting Mar. 2, it will begin considering who will be in that government. The statement did not, however, specify the nature of the government. It did not call it “temporary.”
For months, the NCR has been unable to form a government because there is no international agreement for such a step, especially from Washington. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood fears that such a government will turn into a transitional government where the Brotherhood will have a lesser share than they can get through an outright military victory, after which the civil and liberal revolutionary forces will be unable to demand a share that is beyond their true size.
Despite the $100 million granted by Qatar last week after the NCR’s ambassador in Doha Nizar al-Haraki visited the Qatari Crown Prince Tamam bin Hamad, setting up an administrative government in the Syrian north would require a preliminary budget of no less than $500 million, according to Seif. Khatib spoke of $3 billion. Therefore, the allies would have to commit to subsidizing a true government without specifying the total amount, because the conflict could drag on for a long time.
The Syrian oppositionist said that the NCR avoided the term “temporary government” to avoid an internal quarrel over how the positions will be distributed. The NCR prefers setting up a local administration at most. Moreover, setting up a government will test its authority to confront the Salafist jihadist groups, which are loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood. A new government would also have to deal with the chaos in the Free Syrian Army’s ranks. The FSA is composed of hundreds of groups, as estimated by Lakhdar Brahimi’s representative in Damascus Mokhtar Lamani. A new government would also expose the NCR’s inability to control or unite the FSA because most of its constituent groups are funded by Arab and Turkish sources and are subject to their authority.
The Iranian News Agency (IRNA) said that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem will visit Tehran today [Feb.25], where he will meet his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, before heading to Moscow to meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. IRNA noted that Moallem will return to the Iranian capital after that.
In a statement to the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) a Syrian media source denied “reports by some media outlets about a secret meeting between a representative of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and anyone from the opposition abroad.” NCR sources denied that Khatib had secretly met Syrian businessman Mohammed Hamsho as a representative of Assad.